What does a ‘good school’ actually look like and mean in practice?

There are schools that put mission before politics” David Barrs, Headteacher Anglo European School

The education system the World over is still teaching for the 20th century” Sir Anthony Seldon, Chancellor of the University of Buckingham

The American educator from Colorado on the other end of the Skype conference call asked me a very simple but at the same time complex question last week when we met; “How would you sum up your school?” As a principal, I spend a great deal of time “summing up my school” and it means I have to think about the purpose and mission of Wyedean School constantly. My governors, colleagues and parents would argue I should, I am the principal after all. It does not mean I am complacent about it or do not reflect upon it as a leader. The International Baccalaureate consultant asked me the very same thing on Friday when she came for two days to work with my colleagues, as we get ready to implement the IBCP in our curriculum and become an IB World School. I drove home over the Severn Bridge wondering if my answers were exactly the same or had I left anything out. We have the label “Good” from OfSTED following our formal HMI inspection in 2014 and 2018 but what does it actually mean? A couple of weeks earlier I had spoken to prospective Year 7 students and their parents and carers for the Year 6 Open Evening about not necessarily why they should choose Wyedean for their secondary school but what Wyedean School’s education, ethos and values meant for the holistic development of our young people in our care in our community. I spoke about three key aspects of the Wyedean mission: 1) Positive School Culture; 2) The outward facing school and 3) 21st century education.

I read something on Twitter on the weekend that summed up the role of the principal with regard to the importance of positive school culture and the influence on the school community climate. “The school takes on the personality of the principal. If the principal is mean, the staff will be mean to one another and the kids, and the kids will be mean to one another. If the principal is full of energy, excitement, and enthusiasm, the teachers will be energised to teach and the students will be excited about learning. The principal can either be a flame of positivity or ignite a flame of hope. The principal is responsible for the culture and mood of their school”. I think this is true of any school Head or Principal even in a system where they are less autonomous say in a MAT or in more centrally controlled education systems as in Wales. The first aim in Wyedean school’s priorities is to believe in people.  If we do not, then we have a negative school culture characterised by high staff turnover, fear, overzealous rules and effectively compliance rather than true-shared learning and belief in the transformative power of education. I often feel so fortunate to have worked for and with so many inspirational colleagues, leaders, parents and students that to not believe in people just feels so wrong.  Every “good” schools believes in its staff, its community and most of all its students.

The “competitiveness” between schools is one of the worst aspects of our modern day education system and it is not what we should be doing as places of learning. However, it exists. It was interesting to see this week that Singapore, an education system Lucy Crehan used in “Cleverlands”, is abolishing school ranking: “Learning is not competition”. A mission statement for any department of education. To listen to David Barrs speak at the RSA seminar in London to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the IB and hear him remind the audience that there were still good schools who focussed on their mission and not politics was a refreshing reminder that education doesn’t have to be this way. The most powerful models that drive school improvement are when organisations and educators network, partner and collaborate. That is why Wyedean is working to be an IB World School in a global network of 5000 schools. It is why we are in Challenge Partners working with over 400 schools in England. It is why we are a British Council Ambassador school working with phenomenal schools and teachers in the UK and around the World and it is why we work with schools closer to home locally in the Forest of Dean and Gloucestershire formally. The border between England and Wales as far as education is concerned has become an unnecessary hard border and the only alignment now between two very diverse national education systems is that we only share the same names for qualifications. I fear the hardening of more borders going into the 2020s around the globe.  I pray that I am wrong.  It is a real shame when schools are forced to compete instead of collaborate.  Students lose out.

Good schools share good practices. Gloucestershire is a selective county with grammar schools and when Gloucestershire Heads meet this divide is often apparent especially around funding and resources. It was therefore encouraging a couple of weeks ago at a meeting of county secondary Heads to see unanimity against the further detrimental cuts in educational funding to school budgets. This is where working together matters as schools face the gravest challenges with the funding forecast getting even worse. This is why normally apolitical school leaders marched on Downing Street in September. It is why the UK Statistics Authority taking to task the DfE’s repeatedly misleading stats on school funding is a step in the right direction on the biggest challenge and crisis facing England’s schools.  It was the former Secretary of State, Justine Greening, who recently pointed out the inward mind-set of policy makers when she said, “The Treasury sees education as a cost not an investment”. Even the most forward looking, high performing, high achieving schools are struggling facing a future where funding has been reduced, according to the respected IFS think tank, of around 8%, and more costs like underfunded national pay awards and pension contributions are being pushed onto schools about to or now running at a deficit. Education is not a burden; it is an investment in the country’s future.

The outward facing school is a good school for lots of reasons not least because it means bringing the community and World into the classroom. My first assemblies across all year groups this half term have been around “Languages” and I have focused them on the three aspects of learning more than one language, the vocabulary and communication we individually have as well as the importance of non-verbal communication.  I always liked the quote “Everyone smiles in the same language”.  Another sign of a “Good” school when everyone walks around the campus smiling and greeting one another. The “happiest” and the most smiles in schools I have ever seen was working in Indonesia, tragically now dealing with the aftermath of last week’s tsunami that hit Sulawesi. I am following the developments of the new OfSTED framework due next year not because I slavishly watch everything OfSTED does and base Wyedean’s direction on an external inspection system but because the curriculum is going to feature heavily in the new framework.  A good school does not narrow the curriculum and approaches the curriculum from the point of view of holistic learning using a broad and rich curriculum.  Someone said recently in most schools now the curriculum is just simply the syllabus studied in order to take an exam at the end.  Maybe this is the case in some schools.  One of the main attractions for Wyedean looking at the IB is because their approach to the curriculum and developing the learner is the opposite of an exams factory educational approach.  Hearing Sir Anthony Seldon speak at the same RSA-IB event as David Barrs, stating the majority of education systems are still teaching for the 20th century reminded me why even in 2018 we have to talk about the 21st century as if educators and policy makers were unware we are in this present century.  Last week when I had the pleasure of talking to Mary Murphy of Douglas County school board Colorado to plan collaborative work between our schools around global citizenship, the United Nations SDGs, all using a Microsoft learning platform it made me think again about the potential we have in our schools every day for transformative learning.  When I worked with the positive and energetic students of Heritage International School in Chisinau, Moldova, and their brilliant global educator, Tatiana Popa, for European Day of Languages through Skype last week, it brought home the compelling international learning we have in our schools. Every day, my colleague Emma Williams, is pushing the boundaries of learning with the work she does with Cyber and Digital learning in Wyedean.  The author, Sarah Franklin, author of the WWII book, “Shelter”, set here in the Forest of Dean, came into school to work with Year 11 students for National Poetry Day.  The English department and our JK Rowling library work tirelessly to develop literacy and a love of reading in students. They are always holding an extra opportunity for further involvement in reading and their daily lessons are just superb to see walking around. I see the caring and nurturing work of the Wyedean pastoral teams daily to ensure that in a World where mental health problems for young people are on the increase with resources scaled back, my dedicated colleagues stay late, work early and do all they can to support students to cope and deal with complex issues. My assembly this week to the Sixth Form is on Mental Health Awareness and I will make it very clear that not all adults over 30 castigate young people as “Millennial snowflakes”.

A “good” school is not an OfSTED label. A good school is a school where the people who work there would gladly put their own children on that school’s roll to be educated.  A good school is a school where the climate and culture is completely based around learning and young people.  Maybe this is the time of the year where the “open evening” and the marketing of a school does bring into focus the question of “how would you sum up your school?” and allows school leaders to reflect on exactly what the school stands for and equally important, what it doesn’t stand for. A good school should also stand for certainty in uncertain times so that we are sure that the complex global problems we face in our common humanity have future leaders who know who how to work towards solving them.  When reports appear in newspapers like the respected Washington Post stating we have around ten years to solve climate change through a collective drive on sustainability and give the planet and the generations to come a good future. We also cannot afford to lose sight of our mission in good schools for the sake of short-term narrow politics in the education of our young people.


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